Gilmore Girls - Popular/American Culture Association Website

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Gilmore Girls - Popular/American Culture Association Website
Eugdnie Brinkema
More Gilmore Girls: Rory, Lorelai,
Donna, Stella, and Lucy
Over The Donna Reed Show:
RORY Mother-daughter window washing. We should try that.
LORELAI: Yeah, right after mother-daughter shock treatments.
"You know, Daughter, there's nothing more satisfying than wash-
ing windows-oh no!"
RORY "What? Did I miss a spot?"
LORELAI: "No, I just had an impure thought about your father,
Alex. Funny-I don't know why I had it. It isn't the second
Saturday of the month."
RORY (in a deeper voice) "Hey,
I
heard you had an impure
thought."
LORELAI: "I must now sublimate
al1 my impure thoughts by
going into the kitchen and making an endless string of perfect
casseroles."
DEAN: You're not even listening to the dialogue.
RORY Ours is better.
If one of the more significant revisions that feminist discourse made
to itself in thepost-second-wave generations was to insist on the multiple,
open, expanded denomination of "feminisms," one wonders why that bas-
tard childposfeminismhas been generally relegated to the static exclu-
30.1 October 2007
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More Gilmore Girls 53
would argue that it is rather a regression. For, if early feminist visual
criticismlooked at "images of women" to determinepositive andnegative
role models by surface and narrative standards, the shift that occurred in
1970s ScreenTheory to asking "How do spectators look?" (instead of
"What do viewers look at?") marked a radical reorientation of the work
of feminist and media theory. That later work was invested in examining
sffuctures of looking instead of local representations absfacted from what
Screentheory claimed was a Gnostic/punishing/male (and, later, bisexuaU
female/ambiguous) desire. But when posfeminist media criticism returns
to hunting down "good" or "bad" images of feminism, it is merely retuming
to that very pat query into what it is that we are seeing, rather than the
more provocative (andinfinitely more complex) question of how itis that
we are looking. I contend that one must, then, take postfeminist criticism
back to the 70s, back to its lineage in that break in theory, and consider
how it is that representation presents the discursive category of feminism
in a postfeminist moment. We must ask how it is that we come to gaze on
feminism in and through representation, and set aside all evaluative questions of its positive ornegative depiction.
The popularWB (subsequently CW) series Gilmore Girls (200007) is an ideal field for examining this postfeminist popular representation
of how we look at feminist discourse because it is so susceptible to misreadings. That is, given that the show is nanatively centered on "the Gilmore
Girls"-four generations of women sharing the same last name (despite
radical class differences, a fascinating topic in its own right)-the series
teases a critic into making precisely the' positive images of women" reading that is itself so susceptible to covering over ideological problems with
surface gestures of progressivism. Such a reading focuses on the "strong"
or "well-rounded" female characters in the television text, or on extatextual
discourse about the number of parts for non-traditional actresses (older,
overweight, non-white, etc.). Yet I would suggest that these facts collectively constitute a red herring and a return to the problematic branch of
"images of ' criticism mentioned above. More useful would be attending
to certain elements of the textual specificity of the program.
30.1 October2007
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More Gilmore Girls 55
counterpart to her mother's worldly character; the two eat heartily and
mock the bodily/social strictures placed on women; and the mother and
daughter dominate the show. However, at the same time, the paradoxes
of postfeminism (again, taken commonsensically atthis point) would appear to be omnipresent in their love of women's magazines, consumerism,
and possession of visible signifiers of attractive heterosexual femininity.
None of this matters for my purposes here, for I am arguing that it is not
on the level of characteizaton or narrative that the postfeminist moment is
to be found. I will contingently define that moment as the instance of the
encounter between what I describe above as postfeminist and post-feminist, the historical delineation of choice and the hermeneutics that calls
choices into question. Such a moment is characteized in this episode as
an encounter between representations of feminism and femininity and theil
lived/embodied recollection, one that is formed (and reformed and deformed) through representation, and is not anterior or exterior to it.
The episode begins, as many do, with Lorelai and Rory self-reflexively watching television. The two are routinely found watching movies
and television and recasting/restaging the dialogue, making ironic or historicaVcritical comments, or simply having conversations over and alongside the visual text. Rory's boyfriend, Dean, arrives wrthpizzato join
them, and to their insistent "You're missing it! The incomparable Donna
Reed show!", he replies: "Who's Donna Reed?" Lorelai and Rory are
stunned and offer an answerthat speaks to the ambiguity in Dean's question, which confuses the discursive category and the historical figure. For
them, the answer is in the woman both as a historical representative and
as a media fiction; they tell him that she is "the quintessential 50s mom."
Returning torepresentation and missing (thus admitting and inadvertently
ironizing) the political/tristorical slippage of their answer, he asks "So it's a
show?" Their replies are telling: "It's a lifestyle," daughter says; "It's a
religion," mother adds.
Overthe images of an episodeof The DonnaReed Show, Rory and
Lorelai mockingly provide their own dialogue, sarcastically referencing
the sublimated sexuality of the female protagonist. (It is useful to wonder
30.1 October2007
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More Gilmore Girls 57
sented millions of housewives who hadno suchchoice as Dean's mother.
(Conversely, though unsaid by Rory, it is important to note that this historical representation was simultaneously a political failure to adequately
represent those women, given the idealization of housewifery in the program.) Rory's feminist problematic shifts in this scene from that ambiguous suggestion of a multiple "it" that is ridiculous to one that accommodates Dean's mother's choice to participate in domestic work and a history of unacknowledged female labor. Later,in a move that would appear to be classically performative-postfeminist, in order to end their fight,
Rory invites Dean to her neighbor's house (where she is cat-sitting) to
play "Donna Reed night." Complete with a flouncy skirt, orange heels,
pearls, and a sugary smile, she greets him at the door with a big' Welcome
home, honey." She has made him dinner, and he embarrassedly enjoys
the charade.
Towards the end of the night, Dean's sensitive male guilt kicks in and
he says to Rory
"I don't expect you
to be Donna Reed."
to be Donna Reed. I don't want
you
But Rory changes the terms of the debate, at least on
the surface: she replies that she has done research on Donna Reed (consistent with her brainy character throughout the series) and discovered
that she was an uncredited producer on the show, which makes her
televisually significant and extratextually powerfrrl in contradistinction to
her local image on the show. Rory here has changed her theory of representation. From the metonymic substitution of Donna Reed for all 1950s
housewives to the singular extratextual Donna Reed-as-producer, Rory
returns the image to the historical self, or the image to the body. By
insisting that historical power overthe production of images can redeem
textual representational weakness, this move both provides a defense for
the reappropriating performativity of Rory's "Donna Reed night" and issues an invitation to reg ard Gilrutre Girls itself exffatextually to locate its
relationship to feminism. The series creator and head writers are mostly
women, andAmy Sherman-Palladino, the creator, was also aheadwriter
onRoseanne, so multiple avenues for extra- and inter-textual readings of
the show's "feminist" leanings arepossible.
30.1 October 2007
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More Gilmore Girls 59
said about this textual reference, let it suffice to say that the problem of
female desire, as figured by both Blanche and Stella in,Srre etcar, comes
to be significant in the way Lorelai negotiates heterosexual love over the
course of the series, for it is the unhappily married Stella against whom the
unhappily untethered Blanche finds herself compared. Maniage, inWilliams' play, is no solution for unhappy female melodramatic angst, and
likewise in Gilmore Girls. Although one problematic in the television
program would appear to be the unmarried status of the central female
character (Lorelai), maniage is routinely undermined, critiqued, and foreclosed throughout the series. (Editor's note: Rory refuses an offer of marriage in the series' last episode.) Hence the irony of ambiguously positioned Lorelai screaming "Stella," as it is at the moment of that scream in
Williams'play that Stanley finds himself literally between the two women,
calling for the one while desiring the other-in a truly liminal state. But if
Lorelai is referencing Streetcar's Stella, Stanley, and Blanche, it is not a
resignification or performance as Rory does with Donna Reed, but a blithe
integration of the language of representation into the language of everyday
speech. Indeed, no such neutral, "everyday" speech exists inGilmore
Girls;it is a language always already spoken through representational
knowledge, history, and desire.
Having misplaced Stella and screamed for her in the reference to
Streetcar,Lorelai calls on her friend Luke (one of her central romantic
possibilities throughout the series) to help her find the chick. In that phone
call, she says: "stella got out! What should I do?...Do I pull a Lucy
Ricardo and walk like a chicken so she thinks I'm her mother?" The
reference to "Lucy" is a conffapuntal balance to the references to "Donna,"
I l,ove Lucy standing for female excess, masquerade, and comedy, while
The Donna Reed Show stands (within the discursive logic of Gilmore
Girls) for submission, historicalrelevance/slippage, andbanality. Inpart,
this juxtaposition (the narrative cuts regularlybetrveenLorelai/StellalLuke/
Lucy andRory/Dean/Donnaforthe secondhalf of the episode) is fascinating because it retells the history of femininity and (anti-)feminist sitcoms
through the figures of Lorelai and Rory: Lucy is the first generation, wacky,
30.1 October 2007
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More Gilmore Girls 61
One wonders about the relevance of the saturated reds and blues of
this particular episode, so reminiscent of Sirkian melodrama. Numerous
scenes in "That Damn Donna Reed" take place indoors, under low, dramatic lighting, with deeply toned primary colors-unusual for this show.
Certainly the referenc es to Steetcar andother 1950s media texts about
female desire and/orits repression might offerup a subsequent commentary on the representational politics of the episode. But I want to make
this cenfral point, which, if it could be expanded in relation to the melodramatic visual clues of the show, certainly would not be contradicted by
such a reading (though who knows what may happen to the reading when
I mention that, at the end of this episode, Rory's absent father appears for
the first time in the series, disrupting the matrilineal family structure): if
"postfeminism" is the temporal marker of a moment postceding the historical second wave, then it is the insistence on history as a discursive
saving grace to which the daughter Rory tums and to which her potential
hyphen as post-feminist is subsumed by the paradoxical logics of choice.
In the category of ' post-feminism," that hyphened block segregates
the temporal marker from the political one, allowing a space for scrutinizing the discursive category of feminism itself, and it is in this space-this
confrontation between history as a hermeneutics and feminism itself as a
hermeneutics-that Lorelai the mother finds herself able to take a feminist
(that is, critical) stance towards representation through, paradoxically, a
fall into representation. It is because Rory insists on the security (and
non-negotiability) of the meta-discourse of history that she finds herself
unable to negotiate a feminist relation to (that damn, to cite the episode
title) Donna Reed that can end in critique. That is, all Rory has in rhe end
is solipsistic performative play, which redescribes, at most, her enacted
r€latian to signifiers cf fcmininrty, but which (ails to generalire ints the
historical upheaval she purports to ultimately desire. In turn, it is because
Lorelai insists on no such meta-discourse, but plummets fully into a language and subjectivity formed by representation itself, that she is able to
negotiate and speak her feminist critique without guilt, without mere play,
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More Gilmore Girls 63
The world of Designing Women,Rabinovitz claims, is one in which
'Teminism signifies women's limifless individual choices, and Julia mayjust
as easily choose to be coy and feminine as assertive and independent'"
Lauren Rabinovitz,' Ms.-Representation: The Politics of Feminist Sitcoms,"
2
sion, H i st o ry, and Ame ri c an C ulture : F emini s t C ritic al E s s ay s,
ed. Mary Beth Haralovich and Lauren Rabinovitz (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) 150.
3
Brunsdon writes that "the single trope through which feminism is
most often invoked in popular culture" is some version of "I'm not like
Te I ev
i
that," a refusal on the part of feminists to identify with (any) earlier
instantiations of the movement or its critical manifestations. ln the case of
postfeminism, "ttrere is arepetitioninplay, bothinfeminist scholarship and
in the broader culture, that reinscribes second-wave feminist as that with
which one does not want to be associated." See Charlotte Brunsdon,
"Feminism, Postfeminism, Martha, Martha, and Nigella," Cinemn Journal44,no. 2, Winter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005) 113-114.
While there are certainly televisual predecessors for the popular
culture-inflected dialogue (the WB channel, more generally, is known for
a
its teen- speak-riddled shows, foremost among them being Joss Whedon' s
Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and also televisual predecessors for fast dialogue (Seinfeld comes to mind), it is largely this screwball speed in con'
j unc t i o n w it h the allusion- laden language i n c o ni unc t i o n w ith the specific focus on womeq and more speciflcally, a focus on mothers and daughters, that makes the language of popular culture of particular feminist concern in areading of Gilmore Girls5
This opposition is polemically schematic, but that is precisely how
I contend it functions in this episode of Gilmore Girls. For more elaborate accounts, I would refer interested readers to the analysis of I Love
Lucy inPatricia Mellencamp, Hi gh Anxiety : C atastrophe, S c andal, Age,
& Comedy (Bloomington, IN: Indianapolis University Press, 1992):
RhondaWilcox's entry on "Lucille Ball" rnAmerican lcons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things that Have Shaped Our
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